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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Temples of Bagan : Bike Rides and Sunsets


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gorgeous sunset over Bagan's temples

The sun was about to set and we had no idea how far off we were from this temple our friends told us about. A temple out there, off the basic tourist route where there are less people. I was struggling with my bicycle, given how old it is and how some parts are already falling off. And the trail on this part of the huge complex was dusty and sandy. But I pushed myself forward, sometimes even running with my bike. I couldn’t see Wesley anymore, I told him that it’s okay for him to go ahead without me. I just thought that at least one of us should see the famous sunset from up one of the bigger temples. We didn’t go all the way from New Bagan to Nyaung U, and to this area, just to miss that sunset.


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Luckily, we both made it in time. There were some people on the top, but not as many as those we’ve seen on some of the temples the day before. I found these steps going down a few meters into a smaller platform. From there I took the photos above. Sunset over the temples and pagodas of Bagan, with the dust from the ground giving it a ‘wild’, magical feel. A glimpse of how it may have been like in this place centuries ago.

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Irrawady River

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inside Pyathadar Temple

I love ruins and old temples because of that sense of feeling of being transported back in time. I’ve been to Ayutthaya in Thailand and the famous temples of Angkor in Cambodia. But there’s something unique and special about Bagan.

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inside one of the smaller temples near New Bagan

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Buddha images, paintings, and carvings

Its major temples are not as intricate and grand as that of Angkor’s, but exploring them and looking out over the thousands others offered a different experience altogether.

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Shwesandaw Pagoda (one of the major temples and is famous for sunset viewing = crowded)

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Thatbyinnyu Temple

In Bagan, I didn’t feel much like a tourist having to compete for space or solitary time with any other tourists. In the temples of Bagan, I can choose to climb one (there’s a lot you can choose from) on my own and find my own spot.

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climbed up one of the smaller temples in Old Bagan and was rewarded by this view :)

A spot to marvel at the other bigger temples, which I think are better appreciated from afar; or the thousands of temples scattered around you. In Bagan, you’ll also see Burmese people still tending to their farm animals at the open grounds near the temple.

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Dhammayangyi Temple 

I’m not even going to try to give you a list of the ‘must-see’ temples, or the best ones for sunrise and sunsets. Because admittedly I didn't really know the names of most of the temples we visited. I think one of the things I liked about Bagan is how free you can be. You can choose to join a tour bus, or hire a horse cart, or just rent a bike like we did. It gave us more freedom to explore the huge complex, given how some are not accessible by buses. It’s definitely tiring and challenging most of the time, but it will give you a unique experience to look back on.

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my bike in Bagan :)

During our first day exploring, a Burmese man in a motorbike befriended us and told us that he knew of a temple that has a good sunset view and with less people. I can’t even remember the name of the temple we went to, but we just went right in and climbed our way up to the top. It clearly did not have the sunset view we had in mind. But we had a view of the sunset by the river, and of the magnificent Gawdawpalin Temple.

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Gawdawpalin Temple by the Irrawady River

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sunset by the Irrawady River, tried to capture the mist/fog over the river

After some time, he brought out his paintings and tried to sell some to us. And there were also some children selling postcards. We realized then that we are indeed in Bagan which is one of the most touristy sites in Burma. But as soon as the sun was down, we were left on our own. And the sunset got more beautiful, with the sky filled with different shades of blue, red, and orange. And then the temple was lit up, it was more glorious with that sky as its backdrop.

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Gawdawpalin Temple at dawn

Second day was spent biking all throughout the whole day. We accidentally stayed in New Bagan the whole three days we were there. Our bus from Mandalay arrived three hours ahead of ‘schedule’ at 1am and dropped us off in New Bagan instead of Nyaung U which is more famous for backpackers. The streets were deserted, we were at least 5kms away from Nyaung U, and we were very tired from a full day in Mandalay. So we decided to just try calling out to the first guesthouse we saw, and luckily a person woke up and said that they had a spare room for us. It was more expensive than what we normally get, but it had a nice garden and friendly staff. It was weird though that we were the only foreigners staying there. But we found out the reason why during our last day when we realized we were staying at a hostel which strongly supported the military government and even had a photo of the General at the reception. Please understand that we didn’t do it intentionally.

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Shwezigon Pagoda

Back to the biking. Since we were lazy to move all our stuff to Nyaung U, we decided to just endure the distance going to Nyaung U. We visited more temples along the way, stopped when we felt like stopping. Climbed more temples to see the view from the top.

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welcomed by this mother and son into one of the smaller temples in New Bagan

Bagan, Burma

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an old monastery near New Bagan

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Pyathadar Temple (I think)

And were lucky enough to see our two other friends from the Lucky Seven Group who we’ve been traveling with from Yangon to Hsipaw. They were the ones who suggested we see the sunset from this one temple away from the normal tourist route. And it was far and tiring, but the view (see first photo) was all worth it.

Leaving that temple was another story altogether, but we were again thankful for the kindness of the Burmese people. We may have enjoyed too much our photoshoot when most of the people left, we were just happy not having to share the spot with so many other tourists.

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two of the Shaman's Lucky Seven; Wesley who've been patient with my slow biking skills

It was starting to get dark when we left. The challenge which we knew from the very start was that we would be heading the opposite way that of the other tourists. While almost all of them were going back to Nyaung U or Old Bagan, we were the only ones going back to New Bagan. Riding a bike with only a headlamp on and on sand wasn’t easy. Having your friend remind you to pick up the pace since it was already dark and there’s a chance we might get lost made it even harder. Let’s just say it wasn’t our best moment together. But I knew he was right and he was just concerned about our safety. All we knew was that at some point we were supposed to turn right into a village leading to the main road. But the darkness didn’t help. But pick up the pace I did, which resulted to a small cut and a bruise. That’s when I decided that I’d rather walk than continue biking on sand. Luckily, Wesley slowed down and walked with me too. And more than that, we chanced upon a Burmese man who was also biking from another path. He was so nice to stop and help us. He led the way going to the village and on to the main road. We ended the night rewarding ourselves by eating at a good (well, relative to Hsipaw and Mandalay) restaurant. But despite the heat and muscle pain, we had a great day exploring the temples of Bagan.

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happy and waiting for the sunset :)

Our stay in Bagan was quite an experience. It was our last stop in Burma before heading back to Yangon for our flight to Bangkok. For me, it has been one of the most rewarding travel experiences I’ve ever had. Trekking in Nepal, having that quiet moment just staring at the magnificent peaks of Himalayas was worth all the physical, health, and sometimes emotional challenges I had to go through. Biking on sand in Bagan, climbing up those temples barefoot – it was all worth it as soon as you find your own spot on top and you look out all around you, and you marvel at the sunset and the thousands of temples stretched out as far as your eyes can see, and you feel like you’ve been transported back in time and you've stepped into a magical place.

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sunset love in Bagan

It’s been two months, but I still look at my photos now with awe of how beautiful Bagan is.